Instructional Coaching: Our Journey So Far

Instructional coaching has become the buzzword of late in the world of education. In essence, it is a form of teacher development that focuses on unpicking teachers’ habitual practices, then identifying if these habits are effective or not, and then using evidence-informed approaches to work on the areas that need developing. Crucially, instructional coaching uses a model in which very specific, granular actions are taken, the idea being that these cumulate over time to have a palpable impact in the classroom. You can read more about the evidence and rationale behind instructional coaching here.

Here at Durrington we have been putting in place an instructional coaching model over the last term or so. This is a relatively new approach for us and so it is always essential that we stop and evaluate what’s working, what isn’t and what we might need to change. The purpose of this blog is to share our current reflection in a way that might help others who are embarking on a similar journey.

Why Adopt an Instructional Coaching Model?

For some time, we have been aware that the traditional model of teacher observations, i.e. visiting a teacher two or three times a year and watching them teach a whole lesson then giving lengthy feedback on every decision made, just doesn’t work. The reasons for this are varied and complex, and beyond the scope of this blog, but suffice to say we mostly called a halt to these types of observations some time ago. Whilst curriculum teams follow a very structured fortnightly cycle of lesson visits to ensure fidelity to their departmental priorities, we have struggled to find a replacement that reliably provides an accurate picture of, and means of developing, teaching across the whole school.

Alongside these whole-school T&L considerations was an acute awareness about a particular cohort of colleagues who have missed out on opportunities to get expert guidance in their formative years of teaching, that is our teachers in years 2-5 of teaching (currently known as ECTs, or early-career teachers). For some of this group, their NQT year was drastically depleted in terms of classroom experience due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For all of them, the time they would usually spend learning and developing in their curriculum teams, with day-to-day informal and formal support from more experienced colleagues, has been severely limited. Consequently, we wanted to put something in place that would give these teachers the level of CPD they require and are entitled to in line with other graduate professions.

Evidence-informed instructional coaching seemed our ‘best bet’ in terms of addressing these needs, and so we started creating our roadmap…

Our First Steps

In line with the implementation guidance offered by the EEF, we decided to base our first phase of instructional coaching on a small trial group, and for the reasons outlined above we settled on our ECTs. We then assigned four members of SLT as the ‘coaches’ to work directly with the ECTs. Between us coaches, we investigated all of the available research evidence on instructional coaching, including academic papers, blogs and talking to colleagues from other schools who have been using instructional coaching for some time. This latter exercise was, perhaps, the most helpful in beginning to really visualise how instructional coaching might actually operate as part of the T&L diet of our school. We then created a model for how we would role out the first phase at Durrington. We are partway through this leg of our journey, with the following landmarks reached:

  • We began by meeting and launching instructional coaching with the ECTs. We very much focused on this being an introduction that would create a positive culture around the approach by emphasising how its granular aspect makes it extremely workable way to engage in professional development.
  • Each ECT was then assigned an SLT coach.
  • The SLT coach visited their ECTs’ lessons as much as possible over approximately three weeks. Lesson visits lasted as long as it took to identify a leverage point, i.e. something in the ECTs’ practice that could be developed to have a large, positive impact on students’ learning.
  • The SLT coaches then met to discuss their findings from the lesson visits. At this meeting, all of the ECTs’ leverage points were discussed and an action step agreed. For example, a common leverage point identified across the ECT cohort was questioning, specifically not leaving enough, if any, thinking time between posing a question and then naming a student to answer. The accompanying action step created for this leverage point was ‘Pose a question – pause for 5 seconds – name student to answer’.
  • The SLT coaches then met individually with their ECTs to explain their identified leverage point and resultant action step. We devised a script for these meetings:

“I notice that….

Your leverage point, therefore, is…

Your action step is to…”

  • A critical part of this meeting, and the biggest change for us at Durrington, was then rehearsing the action step several times with the ECT before they try it out in the classroom. For example, with the above action point the ECT had to pose a question to the SLT coach, wait for five seconds in front of them, and then say a name to ask for an answer. This was repeated anywhere between 7 – 10 times, with feedback given on every iteration.

We are now at the stage where all of the ECTs know their leverage points and have practiced their actions steps in controlled conditions before using in the classroom. SLT coaches will be visiting their lessons again as much as possible to see how this works out. The plan is to identify if the ECT has been able to implement their action step or not. If it has been successful, the process will start again with the next granular step. If the ECT still needs to work on their first action step, they will practise once again with their coach.

Making Strides

We are in the very early stages of our journey with instructional coaching and cannot draw any firm conclusions. However, anecdotally we can report that:

  • The ECTs have responded overwhelmingly positively. This is especially the case with the feedback sessions that include the rehearsal of their action steps. Not only have our ECTs said they found these meetings enjoyable (much more so than previous observation feedback sessions), but also that they left with a very clear understanding of what they needed to do and how.
  • Following on from the point above, many of the ECTs have told us that they put their action step in place in their very next lesson (this was sometimes within the hour!) and saw an instant result. Thus, it seems that this is an approach that makes immediate changes to practice possible.
  • The process of visiting several lessons over a period of time means that we (the SLT team) have felt in a better position to pick up patterns and habits (as the model intends) rather than disparate observational points that are unique to a lesson and therefore not impactful in the long term.
  • Although we have only just started visiting lessons post our first ‘coaching sessions’, we have noticed how it is much easier to observe meaningfully with the action step clarified beforehand.

Traffic Jams and Bottlenecks

For us, the benefits of instructional coaching are, thus far, outweighing the challenges it presents. However, we are aware that the glamour of new projects can blind us to any problems and so effective implementation involves acknowledging what might not be working as well or potential issues. As yet, we have not hit any major road blocks but there have been some sticky patches, and three in particular seem significant:

1.

Whilst identifying leverage points has been relatively easy, we have struggled at times to really get to the very granular level of feedback needed for the action steps. Often, we have strayed into wanting to give an ECT several steps to try at once instead of pinpointing a single action. For example, with questioning we have wanted to suggest allowing pause time, using elaborative questioning techniques and scaffolding responses as one action step when in fact this would constitute several. Meeting as a group of coaches and unpicking every action step before it was shared with an ECT helped to alleviate this issue, but it is one we have to watch.

2.

On a purely logistical note, the instructional coaching model does take a lot of time. Coaches need capacity to be able to visit lessons several times and preferably at different points during the school timetable. Time is always a precious commodity in schools, but the lesson visits need prioritising if they are to be useful and this can be difficult, especially at pinch-points in the year. This is a particular consideration for when we scale up the model (see point 3).

3.

Finally, our aim, if instructional coaching continues to be a positive experience, is to scale up so that it is used with all teachers in our school. Our main concern here is fidelity to the design of the programme, especially with the coaches who need to be consistent in how they apply the model: As the scope increases, so does the likelihood of deviations. Alongside this, instructional coaching requires the coach to have a level of expertise in the area they are helping to develop, and this necessity may not always fit perfectly with the people we have on the ground.

Overall, it has been an exciting first leg on our instructional coaching journey and the route looks promising. We will keep you posted once stage two is complete.

Fran Haynes

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